Truth: A How-To Guide

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 'Truth: A Guide'

Author Simon Blackburn discusses his new book Truth: A Guide. The book looks at the battle lines drawn by competing forces in a historical debate over absolute truth.

Guest:

Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge

Read an Excerpt from the Introduction

There are real standards. We must fight soggy nihilism, scepticism and cynicism. We must not believe that anything goes. We must not believe that all opinion is ideology, that reason is only power, that there is no truth to prevail. Without defences against postmodern irony and cynicism, multiculturalism and relativism, we will all go to hell in a handbasket.

So thunders the conservative half of us — of each of us. But perhaps the thunder and conviction betray an anxiety. We may fear that there is another side to it, that our confidence is dogma, that our bluff may be called. There are people who are not impressed by our conviction, or by our pride and our stately deportment. They hear only attempts to impose just one opinion. They hear nothing but the machinations of power, and attempts at suppression of alternatives. They hear bluster, the usual disguise for insecurity. The citadel of conservativism is prey to the whispers of doubt. This is a book about this conflict; a book about a war of ideas and attitudes.

The sides in this conflict have various names: absolutists versus relativists, traditionalists versus postmodernists, realists versus idealists, objectivists versus subjectivists, rationalists versus social constructivists, universalists versus contextualists, Platonists versus pragmatists. These do not all mean the same, and some people who stand on one side or the other would be choosy about allowing them to apply to themselves. So for the moment they simply act as pointers.

Put like this, it may sound as if only special kinds of people, philosophers and theorists, would sign up as warriors in this fracas. It would sound easy to be a non-combatant. But I think this is wrong. For first, the conflict is not only between different people, but grumbles within the breast of each individual, as we find voices within ourselves pulling us to one side or the other. And second, the conflict is about our conception of ourselves and our world, about the meaning of our sayings, and indeed the meaning of our activities and of our lives. It is about ideas that make up the 'spirit of the age', and that determine the atmosphere we breathe. If the ideas are inadequate or dangerous, then we need an immune system to protect us from them, and the only immunity would have to be conferred by better ideas.

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